From the first blast of natural light that greets visitors entering the new spectator bowl within Climate Pledge Arena, it will be glaringly obvious that KeyArena is now dead and buried.
Not beneath the actual venue, mind you, though there might have been room enough for a burial given the 680,000 cubic yards of dirt displaced as workers dug an extra 15 feet downward to form a new arena floor some 53 feet below street level.
Instead, much of KeyArena’s interior now rests in nearby landfills while some of the base structure — particularly the historically preserved roof and side windows — was recycled as part of the new facility.
Besides the roof and side windows, the KeyArena everybody knew is gone. There’s double the arena space in Climate Pledge Arena — some 932,000 square feet if an underground VIP parking garage is included — and an abundance of modern amenities, highlighted in striking fashion by the north end glass wall where natural light pours in.
“I think when people walk in for the first time, they aren’t going to recognize the place,” Oak View Group (OVG) co-founder Tim Leiweke said recently. “It will be something they’ve never quite experienced before.’’
Not in Seattle, anyway. For the princely sum of $1.15 billion, all from private funding, OVG and its partners did the equivalent of holding the arena’s 44 million-pound roof up on stilts, blasting away at everything else beneath and building a new facility.
The final price tag is 92% higher than the initial estimate used by Leiweke’s group to win the 2017 renovation contract. As part of its deal with the City of Seattle, OVG assumed all cost overruns. And though the COVID-19 pandemic and increased building-supply costs were responsible for much of the price hike, it was Leiweke’s group that partially inflated it.
OVG committed $50 million to additional NBA-exclusive upgrades, such as the creation and positioning of basketball-specific locker rooms and television platforms to meet league standards. Those will enable the 17,100-seat NHL facility to be more seamlessly transformed into an 18,300-seat basketball venue for the WNBA’s Storm and eventually a revival of the NBA’s Sonics if all goes according to OVG plans.
What fans will see more directly from the additional design dollars are higher-end finishes by the New York-based Rockwell Group, one of the nation’s better interior-design firms.
“It’s going to surprise people in the greatest way,” Kraken senior vice president (digital, fan experience) Todd Humphrey said of the arena’s aesthetic and interactive components.
Once the NHL delayed the start of the Kraken franchise by a year from an envisioned October 2020 launch, OVG seized the opportunity to bring in Rockwell and look for finer finishes. Those will be visible throughout the private suites and in larger club and concourse areas.
There is wood, exposed brick and tile throughout the arena, showing less of the one million square feet of concrete needed and 8,900 tons of structural steel used to build the facility and lending more of what Humphrey calls a “very Seattle feel” to the private- and public-access areas.
Shawn Sullivan, a Lake Forest Park-raised partner at Rockwell, said last year he strove for “a really rich assortment of Seattle-inspired spaces” that include the Mount Baker Hall, a food hall with stalls in the arena’s upper sections he hoped would remind some of Pike Place Market.
Down at ice level, 19 “Tunnel Club” suites will allow patrons to watch through a plexiglass window as players come on and off the ice.
Just getting to the arena’s interior spaces will be an unusual experience for Seattle sports fans. About 80% of fans are expected to enter the building through the south end, glass-enclosed Alaska Airlines Atrium, which features 30 doors, views of the Space Needle and Seattle Center and escalators down — yes, down — to lower levels. Unlike most arenas where fans entering at street level head up escalators to their seats, Climate Pledge’s entrances start at the highest seating sections. Everything else is below ground, though the natural light eliminates any tomblike feel.
“There really isn’t a bad seat in the house,” Humphrey said. “I can tell you, I stood at center ice with (Kraken general manager) Ron Francis, and we looked up, and could recognize the faces of people standing in the last row of seats. There’s a real intimate feel to everything.”
Part of that intimacy is due to the seating grade. When OVG submitted its design bid to the city during the 2017 proposal process, the Populous architectural firm and lead project architect Chris Carver adopted recommendations from the city council-commissioned 2014 AECOM report of going with the steeper seating once used by old-style NHL venues such as Boston Garden and Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
“The roof, I think, forces you to create a very intimate seating bowl,” Carver said at the time. “We’re trying to compress things … so it gives us more of an opportunity to create great seats — even in the upper deck.”
Keeping the roof intact for historical preservation was a must. Not just to honor the legacy of arena designer and longtime Northwest architect Paul Thiry, but also to unlock tens of millions of dollars in federal tax credits for OVG. Still, keeping that roof suspended for months on dozens of temporary steel posts during the arena’s demolition and rebuild contributed to a chunk of the project’s 3.5 million labor hours put in by 5,955 workers over 1,049 days of building.
“I think it’s safe to say this was really unique,” Ken Johnsen, the OVG construction executive overseeing the project, said last year as workers began reconnecting the roof to the arena’s newly built walls. “This is a one of a kind, of the size of a roof, this weight of a roof, being held in place while building what we’re building beneath it.”
And the building never really stopped, even once the pandemic struck. Amid new safety protocols, supply-chain slowdowns and some trial and error, the interior finishes began with 280 miles of cable laid to support the 5G technology and other modern amenities inside.
The arena is equipped with an array of smart-tech features, designed to keep waiting lines shorter and fans engaged through a phone app with real-time updated game statistics, replays and additional Kraken information. There is also more LED lighting at Climate Pledge than any other NHL facility, and that will be evident with video boards, large and small, positioned throughout the building.
The two biggest scoreboards hang above the ice at opposite ends of the rink.
NHL arenas typically have just one four-sided boxlike scoreboard overhanging center ice. But the dual scoreboards at Climate Pledge — dubbed “the twins” by team officials — are six-sided, triangular shaped and positioned higher than usual to limit interference with sightlines. They’ll allow fans to quickly glance up to check things such as time remaining while keeping an eye on more-dangerous scoring threats near both nets.
Their high positioning and the lack of any center-ice scoreboard also should open up the middle of the rink so fans on both sides can better see and — the team hopes — interact with one another in cheering and chanting. Kraken officials expect the arena to be loud and likely intimidating for opponents, given the high-level acoustics installed to enhance the concert-going experience.
Whatever winds up happening, the man that brought the venue here, OVG co-founder Leiweke, is certain that KeyArena won’t be on anyone’s mind once they look beyond the roof.
“Our goal was to build one of the great arenas of the world,” Leiweke said. “And by the time we open back up, my hope is people will think we’ve done just that.”